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Scrapping and Slogging Toward a Clean Potomac

3,454 volunteers removed 131 tons of trash at the 18th annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup.

Beside the road to Swain’s Lock on a rainy Saturday morning, the water runoff served as a small-scale example of how the Potomac Watershed works. The pouring rain created rivulets of water that flowed off the road and into a parallel stream that ran downhill, bound for the Potomac River. There was a good chance that any leaves, debris and small trash items would get washed off the road and eventually into the Potomac.

Stephen Williams had no idea how the single Birkenstock sandal wound up along the C&O Canal near Swain’s Lock. “One Birkenstock – not a complete pair. I’m sure there’s a story behind that.”

Williams was one of 14 volunteers at Swain’s Lock who persevered through the rain to help with the 18th annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup on Saturday, April 8. Swain’s Lock was one of 256 cleanup sites along the Potomac River and its tributaries, where 3,454 volunteers removed 131.01 tons of trash. The cleanup is spearheaded by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which hopes to make the Potomac trash-free by 2013.

Despite a heavy rainfall on Saturday morning, coordinators at several local sites reported solid turnouts. “I was pleasantly surprised,” said Barbara Sheridan of La Plata, a C&O Canal Association member who oversaw the cleanup at Swain’s.

By Great Falls Tavern, site coordinator Steve DeLanoy said there were 27 volunteers.

Each volunteer signed a waiver and a sign-in sheet, then received a pair of heavy-duty gloves and a pair of bags, one for regular trash and the other for recyclable items.

“Every year I say I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this, and then I forget about it,” said Ron Levin of North Potomac. This year, heeding the words “rain or shine,” Levin came to help at Swain’s Lock. He filled his two trash bags in less than half an hour and returned for two more. Among Levin’s more unusual finds was a sleeping bag, so far disintegrated that it was only recognizable by it zipper. “You look out there and it looks like nothing,” Levin said,” but you keep going and there’s a scrap here and a scrap there.”

AMONG THE VOLUNTEERS at the various cleanup sites were state and federal elected officials, nonprofit group members and boy and girl scouts. Montgomery County students could also earn community service hours. Ennan Hamilton, an 11-year-old from Germantown, was at Swain’s with his mother Elaine Forte and sister Sarian Clarke, 2. They went upstream along the riverbank and the towpath, and returned with bags full of soda cans, plastic bags and beer bottles.

Ennan said he’d recommend the cleanup to friends as a good way to earn community service hours. They family helped clean up at Seneca Creek State Park the previous weekend, and planned to do similar work for Earth Day next weekend. “I realized there’s a lot to be done,” Forte said. “We don’t want to wait until next year.”

Off the towpath, there were muddy conditions on trails along the river. Several volunteers lost their traction while hunting for trash. “The most unusual rescue was sliding down a muddy slope and down into a stream,” said M.J. Veverka of Bethesda, a writer who plans to visit all the national parks in the U.S. and write a book about volunteers and stewardship.

When volunteers retrieve trash items like a washing machine, car tires, street signs and mattresses – all of which were removed from cleanup sites on Saturday – it isn’t an encouraging sign that the Potomac will be clean in seven years. But DeLanoy, a frequent volunteer along the river who grew up in the area, said there’s appreciably less trash than there was 20 years ago.